Dear NYT, Better Teachers? How About Better Journalism?

The New York Times has posed at Room for Debate: How to Ensure and Improve Teacher Quality. As an opinion blog designed to offer debate, and thus differing perspectives, we should expect a spectrum of voices—at least that is the appearance.

So let’s start with a broader perspective: Voices in the media addressing education are inversely proportional to the expertise in the field:

Across MSNBC, CNN, And Fox, Only 9 Percent Of Guests In Education Segments Were Educators. On segments in which there was a substantial discussion of domestic education policy between January 1, 2014, and October 31, 2014, there were 185 guests total on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, only 16 of whom were educators, or 9 percent. Media Matters

Therefore, I think it is fair—and not ad hominem—to clarify the background and experiences of the five debaters selected by the NYT to frame the national debate about teacher quality:

  • Amanda Ripley, journalist, who gained a great deal of national acclaim for her Time cover-story of Michelle Rhee (who eventually left her role in DC under a cloud of suspicion for testing fraud). Ripley has no K-12 classroom experience.
  • Eric Hanushek, economist. Hanushek has no K-12 classroom experience.
  • Mercedes Schneider, 20+-year K-12 classroom teacher who is also an active blogger about education reform.
  • Jal Mehta, Associate Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (with a PhD in sociology). I can find no information on any K-12 teaching experience, but he has written several books on education.
  • Kaya Henderson, Chancellor DCPS with degrees in international relations and leadership (not education). Henderson has K-12 teaching experience.

Any fair person can see this line up is skewed in much the same way that most mainstream journalism distorts the narrative about teacher quality and education.

But let’s add just a couple more details.

Henderson’s background, like Ripley’s, significantly overlaps with Rhee (Henderson served under Rhee at DCPS, although her bio linked above conveniently doesn’t include Rhee’s name) as well as Teach for America and The New Teacher Project, “a spin-off of TFA…originally led by Michelle Rhee.”

And if all this seems to some to be more about the people than the substance of their claims, let’s add a closer look at Hanushek’s first paragraph:

Despite decades of study and enormous effort, we know little about how to train or select high quality teachers. We do know, however, that there are huge differences in the effectiveness of classroom teachers and that these differences can be observed.

Without even a hyperlink or any evidence, Hanushek discounts the entire field of teacher education in the first sentence (which is factually untrue), and then characterizes teacher quality with “huge,” although the research base shows teacher quality’s impact on measurable student outcome is quite small (and note whose work is included in the synthesis of teacher quality research below):

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects [emphasis added]. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998;Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

At best, Hanushek’s opinion opens with inaccurate, unsubstantiated, and misleading claims.

More of the claims in the five opinions included are factually unsupported than supported, but the focus and the rhetoric maintain a false argument about teacher quality as well as the need for mostly ineffective reform strategies that do not serve the interests of students, communities, teachers, or public education.

Politicians, self-serving organizations (such as TFA), and think tanks promoting bunkum benefit from the inordinate misinformation included, but not genuine education reform aimed at the single greatest problem facing our society and our schools: inequity.

This version of Room for Debate is yet another tired example of an ironic fact: In the debate over teacher quality, there is little room for the truth or the voices of life-long teachers who have served their students and their communities.

Avoiding Patricia Arquette Moments in Education Reform

When Patricia Arquette called for equal pay for women after being awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in late February 2015, Meryl Streep stood, cheering, and Hillary Clinton voiced her support as well.

However, social media began to catalog a much different response, notably by black Haitian writer of Bad Feminist Roxane Gay and Imani Gandy, attorney and political journalist advocating for women’s rights, who explained:

With those words—whether intentional or not (and personally, I believe it was unintentional)—Patricia Arquette gave voice to a system of structural erasure that has been the gold standard in the feminist movement since well before Sojourner Truth stood up and declared “Ain’t I A Woman?”

That erasure assumes that all men are white men and all people of color are men. And that erasure leaves women of color wondering where they fit into all of this.

In a follow up blog, Gandy adds:

My conversation with [Nicole Sandler] got me thinking about the conversations that I have with white women about privilege and why it tends to devolve into shenanigans and feelings of ill-will (as it unfortunately has with Nicole).

Oftentimes when I have these conversations with white women, they’ve never heard the term white privilege before, or if they have, they dismiss it as inapplicable to them.

Arquette represents the dangers of good intentions in the context of unexamined privilege, as Gandy confronts above and then emphasizes:

Here’s the thing about privilege: There are all kinds. There’s privilege based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, citizenship status, and on and on. (A great primer on the concept is Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Privilege Knapsack.”)

And you know what? Almost every single person on the planet has privilege in some form or another.

Me? I have class privilege. I make a decent living now and I grew up upper-middle class. I never wanted for anything. And I rarely want for anything now. (Certainly the things that Iwant are luxury items that I really don’t need. I mean, I’ve got my eye on a Michael Kors purse, but do I need it? Hardly.)

Additionally, Arquette as a white woman offers an important moment for the education reform debate, notably since education has its own Arquette in the form of Ruby Payne.

“The current teaching population in the U.S. comprises mostly white, middle-class women,” explain Sato and Lensmire in their analysis of Payne’s claims about poverty and why those discredited stereotypes are nonetheless embraced:

Osei-Kofi (2005) thinks that Payne’s stereotypes provide the well-meaning educator with a certain “guilty voyeuristic pleasure” as they get to affirm their own normalcy against the “comfortably familiar” image of the poor as pathological. Payne plays on our sense of ourselves as normal, the norm, as well as on our sense of the poor as different, other.

Sato and Lensmire then quote Osei-Kofi:

“Based on this depiction of the poor, educators become perfectly situated to take on the role of middle-class, primarily white, saviors of children in poverty by being ‘good’ role models, and teaching these children the so-called hidden rules of middle-class. Through the objectification of the poor, educators are implicitly positioned as the true histor- ical subjects with ability to act in creating social change.” (Osei-Kofi 2005, p. 370; emphasis added)

Bomer, and others, have exposed the same dynamic, including how Payne misrepresents poverty and race in her frameworks:

Racializing the representations of poverty means that Payne is portraying poor people as people of color, rather than acknowledging the fact that most poor people in the US are white (Roberts, 2004). By doing so, Payne is perpetuating negative stereotypes by equating poverty with people of color. Although there is a correlation between race and class, this does not justify her use of racialized “case studies.”

Payne’s audience of teachers is primarily white, female, and middle class, so their probable shared perspective makes it likely that such signals will be understood as racial. Given that the truth claims do not explicitly address the relationships between poverty, race, ethnicity, and gender, we are merely pointing out the absence of such considerations from Payne’s work.

And despite a growing body of research refuting Payne’s claims about class and race, Payne continues to prosper on her self-published books and workshops and has often been defiant—a cycle not unlike Arquette’s defense of her comments and advocacy—as Gorski notes:

For example, in response to a critique of A Framework published by Teachers College Record (Gorski, 2006b), Payne (2006a) writes: “Gorski states that his lens is critical social theory. My theoretical lens is economic pragmatism. The two theoretical frames are almost polar opposites.”


Well-intentioned people, then, unwilling to examine their own privilege and then defiant against the voices of others who speak from marginalized perspectives are as apt to derail the call for equity in education reform as the so-called corporate reformers.

As I have detailed in literacy education, uncritical embracing of the “word gap” reveals the blinders of privilege and then leads directly to policy distorted by racism, classism, and sexism—policy, then, that perpetuates inequity while claiming to be reform.

As Gandy explains above, everyone must be open to examining her/his own privilege, even when she/he feels primarily to be in a marginalized status (such as white women), but that self-examination is often hard since the factors are so close and familiar.

While watching an HBO’s Real Sports episode on Death on Everest recently, I was struck how the relationship between Shirpas and mostly affluent and often white mountain climbers is a stark but real example of the danger and power of privilege: White wealth pays to defer great risk and even death from the climbers to the Shirpas.

A context such as that—also examined in Death and Anger on Everest by Jon Krakauer—may offer the distance needed to understand privilege before turning the mirror on ourselves and those near us.

Nonetheless, as much as the Arquette controversy is important for a national examination of privilege, it is also a key moment for committing to avoiding more Arquette moments within education, where there is no room for privilege or the status quo of racism, classism, and sexism.

South Carolina and Education Reform: A Reader

Hartsville, South Carolina sits just north of I-20 and north-west of I-95 about a 30-minute drive from Florence.

Geography matters in SC when discussing education because the state has a long and tarnished history of pockets of poverty and educational inequity now commonly known as the Corridor of Shame [1], a name coined in a documentary addressing that inequity as it correlates with the I-95 corridor running mostly north and south paralleling the SC coast.

The town’s schools are part of Darlington County School District that serves approximately equal numbers of white and black students, although significantly skewed by poverty as reflected in the district’s 2014 report card detailing tested students:

Darlington 2014

Hartsville is the focus of an upcoming PBS documentary co-produced by Sam Chaltain, who writes about the community:

Take Hartsville. Until recently, no one there had ever asked Thompson or her colleagues what they noticed about their child passengers on the bus, or thought to connect their observations to the behavior teachers might witness in the classroom. Moreover, while Hartsville’s teachers were expected to be knowledgeable about their students’ academic standing, they were not expected to be attuned to their psychological states.

That began to change in 2011, when the community announced a five-year plan to transform its elementary schools. It partnered with Yale University’s School Development Program, which helps schools identify and meet the developmental needs of children. It began to evaluate its schools by a broader set of measurements – including the number of disciplinary referrals a bus driver had to write each morning. And it started to coordinate its social services to ensure a more equitable set of support structures for Hartsville’s poorest families.

This focus on Hartsville specifically and SC more broadly is important for understanding the entire education reform movement in the U.S. for several reasons.

The standards/testing issues in SC are complex (the anti-Common Core movement in SC is mostly ill-informed and falls along libertarian lines, for example) and represent well patterns found across the country during the mostly state-based accountability era (see below).

SC was one of the first accountability states, and we have had about 5-6 sets of standards and new tests over 30-plus years (see below). Throughout those years, almost no one in political leadership has acknowledged SC being in the bottom quartile of poverty in the U.S.—huge pockets of poverty and affluence—is the real educational crisis.

Like New Orleans, I think, SC is a perfect model of all that is wrong with the education reform debate.

I recommend viewing the 180 Days focus on Hartsville through the complicated and often jumbled politics and education reform over the past three decades in SC, much of which I have addressed in the reader offered below, organized by major accountability issues and policies:

Value-Added Methods of Teacher Evaluation:

South Carolina Officially Vamboozled

Review [UPDATED]: “How to Evaluate and Retain Effective Teachers” (League of Women Voters of SC)

SC and Common Core:

South Carolina and Common Core: A Next Step?

Death to Common Core! Long Live Failed Education Policy!

Should SC Ditch Common Core?

SC, Reading Policy, and Grade Retention:

Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

SC and Opt-Out:

SC Parents Warned: “no state provision…to opt-out of state-or district-wide testing”

SC, Oklahoma, and Florida:

GreenvilleOnline: SC should choose Oklahoma, not Florida

SC’s Former Superintendent Zais:

SC’s Zais Mistake

SC and Accountability:

Welcome to SC: A Heaping Stumbling-Bumbling Mess of Ineptitude

SC and Charter Schools:

Should SC Increase Charter School Investment?

Public School, Charter Choice: More Segregation by Design

SC and Exit Exams:

Ending Exit Exams a Start, But Not Enough

SC’s Conservative Leadership:

Conservative Leadership Poor Stewardship of Public Funds

[1] This documentary focuses on a court case in South Carolina initiated by high-poverty school districts surrounding primarily the I-95 corridor of the state, paralleling the east coast and stretching from the NE to the SE region. The documentary suffers from melodramatic production values (music, slow-motion panning of sad children’s faces), but the essential claim of the film is important for confronting the social inequity that is reflected in educational inequity, particularly in the South. Issues included in the film are school funding, community-based schools, access to high-quality educational opportunities and facilities, teacher assignments related to student characteristics, and state education accountability mechanisms. Some related resources (SC school report cards, poverty indices, related blog posts) to the documentary support examining the film in my educational documentary May experience course.

De-professionalization for Profit: “Leery of teachers”

In Common Core’s unintended consequence?, Jonathan Sapers examines a report from the Center for Education Policy (CEP), self-described as “a national, independent advocate for public education and for more effective public schools.”

CEP has discovered “that in roughly two-thirds of districts in Common Core states, teachers have developed or are developing their own curricular materials in math (66 percent) and English Language Arts (65 percent). In more than 80 percent of districts, the CEP found that at least one source for curriculum materials was local — from teachers, the district itself or other districts in the state.”

As has been the pattern throughout roughly thirty years of public school accountability—one characterized by a revolving door of state standards and high-stakes testing—new standards and tests mean profit opportunities for education-focused businesses.

Sapers reports:

However, Jay Diskey, executive director of the PreK-12 Learning Group of the Association of American Publishers, said publishers are pulling their weight. “We have more than 150 members in our PreK-12 Learning Group. And the ones I’ve seen over the past several years or more have tried very hard to align with Common Core standards in reading and math.”…

Some teachers and districts are viewing the dearth of materials as an opportunity, but experts and even some educators say putting the job of creating curriculum materials into the hands of teachers may not necessarily be a good thing [emphasis added].

And this is where the article takes a troubling turn, as highlighted here:

leery of teachers

“Leery of Teachers”

My career as an educator includes 18 years teaching English in a SC public high school throughout the 1980s and 1990s, followed by the most recent 13 years as a teacher educator in higher education.

Those experiences and in my work teaching future teachers, I note that a powerful and problematic difference between a K-12 teacher and a college professor is the locus of authority in terms of the content of any course.

Historically and currently, the authority over content for K-12 teachers has too often been textbooks, curriculum guides, standards, and high-stakes tests.

For college professors, the single most important element of teaching authority is that professors are the locus of authority of the content they teach; in fact, many if not most college professors have little or no formal training in pedagogy, how to teach.

The great irony of this distinction is that between K-12 teachers and professors, K-12 teachers have the greater expertise in teaching, but a far reduced status as a professional when compared to professors.

Along with the locus of authority over the content, the status of professional is strongly related to autonomy and respect—which brings me back to the “unintended consequence” above.

The attitude toward K-12 teachers not having time to create curriculum is valid, but the reason they do not have time includes the incessant changing of bureaucratic mandates that consume their time and that K-12 teachers do not have professional schedules (which professors do) in which to conduct research and create curriculum (which are often related at the university level).

However, the “leery” as well as the unsubstantiated claim that teachers do not have the “professional background” to create curriculum is a genuinely ugly example of the de-professionalization of teaching—a process aided by a historical marginalizing of teaching (significantly as an element of professional sexism), the bureaucratizing of teaching, and the union-busting momentum in recent years.

We should be exploring the real intended consequence of Common Core: billions are to be made off the standards and testing charade, and teachers creating their own curriculum and materials infringes on that profit.

Teaching at all levels includes curriculum, instruction, and assessment, but central to those elements are the unique set of students each teacher faces every day.

Curriculum, instruction, and assessment mean almost nothing without the context of students, and the only person qualified to make those decisions is the teacher.

If we must be leery, let’s be leery about think tanks, publishing companies, and mainstream media who all seem to have little respect for the professionalism of teaching.

See Also

Teaching: Too Hard for Teachers, Peter Greene

Public School, Charter Choice: More Segregation by Design

Academic Magnet High School serves the Charleston school district on the coast of South Carolina. The school functions under a choice umbrella, but requires students to submit to an admissions process.

SC is relatively more diverse than the U.S. on average in terms of white (+/- 70%)/black (+/- 30%) demographics, while less diverse in Hispanic/Latino (although those groups are growing significantly). Charleston certainly is even more diverse racially and culturally than the state.

Those realities have now prompted students at Academic Magnet to challenge the lack of diversity at their school:

Calls for a change in the admissions process at Academic Magnet High School continued Monday, with students urging the Charleston County School Board to tackle diversity issues at their school.

“Is the system that has produced an overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class school in place of an equal opportunity magnet school for all Charleston County students fair?” asked Academic Magnet student Natalie Davidson….

Davidson said that although the school’s admissions process is “in a vacuum unbiased,” it has produced a “homogeneous” student body that is only 2 percent black in a school district that is 42 percent black.

The 2014 SC school report card for Academic Magnet shows absolute and growth ratings of excellent, but tested students included no African American or Hispanic/Latino students:

AMHS test 2014

Magnet and charter schools, however, are not the only choice mechanisms in SC since Greenville County school district offers (and aggressively markets) public school choice:

GCSD choice market

What has public school choice and charter choice produced in Greenville County?

Greenville Tech Charter High School, like Academic Magnet, has 2014 school report card ratings of excellent/excellent, but just over 80% of the students tested are white with no limit English proficiency students included:

GTCHS tested 2014 race

Public school choice has also resulted in highly segregated schools within the same district.

Berea High School has a consistent record of being a majority-minority school and also serves a diverse population of students by poverty and special needs:

BHS race

BHS poverty special needs

As a result, Berea High’s 2014 school report card looks quite different when compared to Academic Magnet or Greenville Tech Charter—good (absolute) and below average (growth) ratings, and a much different tested demographic of students:

BHS tested 2014

However, Riverside High School looks much more like Academic Magnet or Greenville Tech Charter—an excellent/excellent rating in 2014 and serving/testing a population 73% white:

RHS race

RHS tested 2014

Choice, then, in a variety of forms such as public school choice, charter schools, and magnet schools/academies are isolating students by race and class within highly diverse regions of a highly diverse state.

No longer vouchers or tuition tax credits, choice is now masked behind the allure of misleading labels—public, charter, magnet, academy—but ultimately resulting in one disturbing fact: choice segregates by design.

More choice will result in greater segregation and more shuffling, but market forces will never address equity and will always create winners and losers instead of establishing opportunities for all—as Academic Magnet demonstrates.

The call for fairness and diversity by students at Academic Magnet should be a call among all in SC and across the U.S.

See Also

Why Sending Your Child to a Charter School Hurts Other Children

Incessant Prediction for Education Reform: “bad things will happen”

Prescient then and now, Joanne Yatvin’s minority report as part of the National Reading Panel is a must read (scroll to about page 444), and regretfully can be applied to every aspect of the enduring accountability-based education reform movement; see this excerpt:

Yatvin minority excerpt

Bad things have happened, bad things will continue to happen.

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

Depending on your historical and literary preferences, spend a bit of time with Franz Kafka or Dilbert and you should understand the great failure of the standards movement in both how we teach and how we certify teachers—bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy tends to be inadequate because bureaucrats themselves are often lacking professional or disciplinary credibility or experience, depending, however, on the status of their authority to impose mandates. For education, Arne Duncan serves well as the face of the bureaucrat, an appointee who has only the bully pulpit of his appointment to hold forth on policy.

However, as corrosive to education—and ultimately to evidence-based practice—is the technocrat.

Technocrats, unlike bureaucrats, are themselves credible, although narrowly so. For technocrats, “evidence” is only that which can be measured, and data serve to draw generalizations from randomized samples.

In short, technocrats have no interest in the real world, but in the powerful narcotic of the bell-shaped curve.

As a result, a technocrat’s view often fails human decency (think Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein) and certainly erases the very human reality of individual outliers.

The face of the technocrat—in fact, the technocrat’s technocrat—is Daniel Willingham, whose work is often invoked as if handed down by the hand on God, chiseled on tablets. [1] [Note: If you sense snark here, I am not suggesting Willingham’s work is flawed or unimportant (I would say important but narrow), but am being snarky about how others wield the technocratic hammer in his name.]

And it is here I want to return to a few points I have made recently:

  • Even the gold standard of experimental research fails the teacher in her day-to-day work because her classroom is not a random sampling of students, because her work is mostly with outliers.
  • And in the teaching moment, what counts as evidence becomes that teacher’s experience couched in that teacher’s content and teaching knowledge as all of that happens against the on-going evidence of the act of teaching.

Stewart Riddle, offering yet another effort in the reading war, is essentially speaking for evidence-based practice while raising a red flag against the tyranny of the technocrat, embodied by the systematic phonics crowd (those who wave the Willingham flag, for example).

On Twitter, in response to my piece on evidence-based policy and practice, Nick Kilstein raised a great point:

My ultimate response (prompting this blog):

My thoughts here, building on the bullet points above, are that having our practice informed by a wide range of evidence (including important evidence from technocrats, but also from other types of evidence, especially qualitative research [2] that can account for outliers, nuance, and the unexpected) is much different than having our practice mandated by evidence (think intensive, systematic phonics for all children regardless of needs or fluency because that is the program the school has adopted).

For day-to-day teaching, the tensions of the disciplines remain important: what we can measure against what measuring cannot address.

When Willingham proclaims that a certain type of research does not support the existence of learning styles, for example, teachers should use that to be very skeptical of the huge amount of oversimplified and misguided “teacher guides” and programs that espouse learning styles templates, practices, and models. [3]

But day-to-day teaching certainly reveals that each of our students is different, demanding from us some recognition of those differences in both what and how we teach them.

It is in the face of a single child that technocrats fail us—as Simon P. Walker notes:

Some educational researchers retreat to empiricist methods. Quantitative studies are commissioned on huge sample sizes. Claims are made, but how valid are those claims to the real-life of the classroom? For example, what if one study examines 5,000 students to see if they turn right rather than left after being shown more red left signs. Yes, we now with confidence know students turn left when shown red signs. But so what?  What can we extrapolate from that?  How much weight can that finding bear when predicting human behaviour in complex real world situations where students make hundreds of decisions to turn left and right moment by moment? The finding is valid but is it useful?

If that child needs direct phonics or grammar instruction, then I must offer them. If that child is beyond direct phonics and grammar instruction or if that direct instruction inhibits her/his learning to read and write, then I must know other strategies (again, this is essentially what whole language supports).

The tyranny of the bureaucrats is easy to refute, but the tyranny of the technocrat is much more complicated since that evidence is important, it does matter—but again, evidence of all sorts must inform the daily work of teaching, not mandate it.

Professional and scholarly teachers are obligated to resist the mandates by being fully informed; neither compliance nor ignorance serves us well as a profession.

[1] For more on worshipping technocrats, explore this, notably the cult of John Hattie and that those who cite his work never acknowledge the serious concerns raised about that work (see the bottom of the post).

[2] Full disclosure, I wrote a biography for my EdD dissertation (published here), and also have written a critical consideration of quantitative data.

[3] See, for example, how evidence (Hart and Risley) functions to limit and distort practice in the context of the “word gap.” The incessant drumbeat of the “Hart and Risley” refrain is the poster child of the tyranny of technocrats.